Friday, June 16, 2017

Playing funk effectively

Here are a few tips on playing funk and related music, focusing on how to project to the audience and facilitate groove among the musicians while playing live unmiked, at a moderate to moderately strong volume— a very common situation in your gigging life. The present dominant style, heavily influenced by Steve Gadd and David Garibaldi, has been around a good 40 years— actually internet drumming is kind of milking it to death and running it into the ground, choose your metaphor. So it's good to go back to fundamental principles and create our own way of playing this music by listening to some other drummers, and thinking about what we're actually doing here.

First, some listening. Start this sucker up while you read— most of this isn't pure funk, but the style of the drumming illustrates some of the things I'm talking about below. We've covered several of these tracks on the blog before, and there are links for them at the end of the post.

In no particular order of importance:

A solid tone
The tendency today is to tune the snare drum high and play hard rim shots on it, mistaking savagely aggressive attack for... I don't know what, emotion? Depth of funk? We're looking for a chunky tone out of every part of the drumset— snare drum, bass drum, hihat, toms. Play so your important notes— hopefully all of them— project to the back of the room, while maintaining a balance with the band.

Play with the butt(s)
I almost always play with the left stick backwards, to get a fatter sound out of the snare and toms. Increasingly I'll do that with the right stick as well, for a more solid tone out of the hihat. And not just for volume— I actually do this more often on softer tunes and lower-volume gigs. At normal, non-slamming volumes you have to have pretty good dynamic control if you're going to move to the ride cymbal without flipping your stick— you have to be able to play your right hand softly while maintaining your sound with your bass drum and left hand.

Stop trying to be funky
Everybody has their favorite things to play to prove they're not as white as they look, but don't go to that stuff automatically. Lay down a solid 2 and 4, and 1 and 3, and hihat rhythm, and see what the music asks you to add or change from there— if anything.

Whither ghost notes
I know it's the hot topic du jour, and they sound cool when you're playing by yourself, or when somebody samples somebody else playing them, but they don't necessarily do a whole lot in real playing. They're ghost notes— by their nature they're not really heard, especially when there's other activity in the venue, the drums aren't miked, and the balance within the band may not be perfect. It just becomes more clutter. And with all of that left hand activity, there's not a lot of time to think about what you're doing, and to maybe decide to do something different. Clear out some of that junk and give yourself some room to think between snare hits.

Accents/dynamics on fills
It's a good idea to play your fills on the toms a little stronger than the surrounding music, since the toms tend not to project. You want to continue expressing the groove with your fills, so try forgetting about accenting— those unaccented notes are just holes in the groove. See how playing the entire fill at an even volume works for you— a minor case of Ginger Bakeritis can be helpful. (Caveat: see Ginger Baker's actual playing for examples of the pitfalls of taking that too far.) You may crescendo.

Accents/dynamics in general
People who want to be good musicians are always looking for ways to distinguish ourselves from that other rabble of drumming meatheads, and often we'll do that by playing a lot of subtle internal dynamics— ghost notes, accents, accenting the hihat rhythm. But often the most effective thing is to play fewer notes and play them at an even volume.

Don't just jam
A very bad thing a lot of people do— not just drummers— when playing any kind of R&B is to go into mindless jamming mode. Don't do that. Play the tune, and always be going somewhere— what you're playing may sound static to a casual listener, but you're actually very keyed into to the dynamic shape of phrases and sections. Discourage other players from going into jamming mode by controlling the dynamics— mainly, you have to figure out how to back the volume down so the rest of the group knows they're supposed to back off with you. It's often a difficult challenge, because the players who just jam also tend not to be aware of other options, to not know the material, and not be very good listeners.

Listening and groove
I used to think if I listened very hard to the other players, the band would find a groove that is correct for that particular set of musicians on that particular day. It didn't really work. Instead— unless the other players are exceptional groove players, or are extremely well rehearsed— try being somewhat detached and self contained with regard to the time. When the others realize that the foundation is solid, and the little (or big) inaccuracies in their own playing are not messing up the groove, they relax and start playing better themselves. It does take a delicate touch, because you can't just obstinately hang onto your perception of the tempo when the rest of the group is obviously someplace else.

Groove and the grid
A common piece of advice is to groove by thinking about the grid— an overlay of undifferentiated 16th notes or 8th notes— I don't believe that by itself is enough. Instead, think about expressing the grid through the single rhythm created by your interlocking parts. This means you know how to count rhythms, and you are aware of how everything you play lines up and fits together. Thinking this way you have to know what you're playing, so you may have to simplify (at first) and not play on autopilot. But groove is extremely important— more important than you playing all your stuff.

Younger players and fairly-serious amateur players talk a lot about this, but much of the above advice leads away from focusing on this cherished “feel” idea, and more into playing somewhat mechanically. Frankly, most of the time people aren't hearing your wonderfully subtle feel as you imagine it, they're hearing a weak performance. Just know what you want to play, perform it, and your true feel will emerge.

I say this with the caveat that sounding too mechanical is extremely difficult, and you'll probably never get there. But increasingly I see examples of people pulling off that feat, and sounding bad as a result. You just have to judge for yourself if what you're doing breathes and sounds like music, or if you've taken a good idea too far.

Don't double-time
Finally, for now: don't go into double time at every opportunity, and discourage the other players from doing it. That frenetic faster 16th note stuff doesn't sound as cool as you feel playing it.

Blog post links for today's listening:
Transcription of Ndugu Leon Chancler playing Earth by Joe Henderson
Transcription of Ngugu Leon Chancler playing Watch Out, Baby! by George Duke
Drum grooves by Tiki Fulwood, from Maggot Brain by Funkadelic
Transcription of Ivan Conti playing Linha do Horizonte by Azymuth
Transcription of Roger Hawkins playing Chain of Fools by Aretha Franklin
Commentary on Harvey Mason playing Breezin' by George Benson

1 comment:

Marcelo Borba said...

Very good your article. Congratulations! I learned a little more about driving on the drums. I have some sounds of Brazilian drummers that can be heard on my blog. Maybe it's interesting: